ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Russia's attempts to interfere in last year's presidential election got a big boost from an unwitting player - Facebook. Russian operatives set up fake accounts on the network to reach Americans and that is despite a longstanding Facebook rule that requires users to go by their real names. NPR's Ryan Lucas looks at how well the social media giant is stamping out fake accounts.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: So I'm sitting at my desk on the fourth floor of NPR's headquarters in Washington, and I have decided to set up a Facebook account, but I'm not going to use my own name - going to be a fake account, so here we go.
That was easy. It took less than a minute and I wondered - what stops anyone else from doing this?
LISA-MARIA NEUDERT: Personally, I am not on Facebook with my real name. When I first signed up in 2008, I signed up with a made-up identity, and nobody has ever contacted me about not being on Facebook with my real name.
LUCAS: That's Lisa-Maria Neudert. She's a researcher with the computation and propaganda project at the Oxford Internet Institute in England. She and I, it turns out, are two of an unknown number of fake accounts among Facebook's some 2 billion members worldwide. Requiring authenticity gives Facebook a reason to take fake accounts down, but it doesn't help the company find them. For that, Facebook largely relies on reports from users, and that, experts say, is not a recipe for success.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Facebook can't expect users who have been fooled to stop being fooled by a fake account. You know, if a fake account is well-designed, you know, it's going to draw people in.
LUCAS: That's Siva Vaidhyanathan. He's a media studies professor at the University of Virginia and the author of an upcoming book on Facebook.
VAIDHYANATHAN: Relying on users to cleanse and police other Facebook accounts is never going to get the job done.
LUCAS: And there is indeed plenty of evidence that Americans have been fooled by Russian government-sponsored fake accounts. Congressional investigators recently documented two inauthentic accounts - one called Heart of Texas and the other called United Muslims of America - that had hundreds of thousands of followers apiece. They even managed to sponsor dueling protests in the streets of Houston in 2016. Neudert notes that the Russian-run phony accounts were highly credible and highly sophisticated. They had fully drawn characters with few signs that would draw suspicion.
NEUDERT: For anyone to really detect those accounts as fake accounts is going to be a highly sophisticated task as well.
LUCAS: Most Facebook users aren't paying attention that closely. What else is Facebook doing to try to address the problem? Well, the company says it's hiring more people to review ads on its platform, and it's also investing in technology. This is Facebook's general counsel Colin Stretch.
COLIN STRETCH: The investment we are making and the commitment we are making is to ensure that our authenticity policy is more effectively policed and monitored to prevent exactly this sort of behavior.
LUCAS: Again, Vaidhyanathan.
VAIDHYANATHAN: There's always a hint that, you know, some elaborate artificial intelligence or machine learning system is just on the horizon and will help us scour Facebook and get rid of all of the junk. But the fact is those systems are many years off.
LUCAS: So if users are bad at spotting well-crafted fake accounts and the technological silver bullet is still a ways off, what are we to do? Users should bear in mind as they scroll through their news feed and glance at ads that the platform is vulnerable to manipulation, including by a foreign spy service up to no good. Top U.S. intelligence officials have warned that influence campaigns like the Russians ran around the 2016 election aren't going to stop. In fact, they say, they're the new normal. Again, Vaidhyanathan.
VAIDHYANATHAN: And if Vladimir Putin had ordered a bunch of his favorite software engineers to design a propaganda system that would infiltrate the political environment of Ukraine and Poland and Hungary and even the United States, he could not have developed anything more effective than Facebook.
LUCAS: For the record, that new account of mine is still kicking online. Don't forget to friend me if you can find me. Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.